When I received an invitation to ride on a float at this year's Mardi Gras, my excitement level was so great that at first I frightened my boyfriend, who mistook my enthusiasm for the receipt of bad news. Explaining the offer to him over the phone, I teetered on the edge of hyperventilation.
I've had a thing for New Orleans since high school, when I read all of Tennessee Williams' plays for a thesis paper. My suspicions about the place -- that it was humid, peculiar and full of misfits -- were confirmed on a field trip during my junior year. In New Orleans, people read poetry and drank on the streets. Lanky trees, draped with beads, stretched their branches over slow-moving avenues. Marble cherubim kept watch at the city's aboveground cemeteries. Residents never seemed to rest.
The city had everything my humdrum New England suburb lacked, and I left wanting much more. To this day, given the choice between the Crescent City, Paris, or London I'll pick New Orleans every time.
But I had never been to a Mardi Gras, let alone participated in one of its parades, and my elation stemming from the news could not be contained.
Landing at Louis Armstrong Airport after a 5AM flight, I know Melinda Richard is just the woman I want to see when she tells me on the phone "honey, I have hot coffee and king cake. Come on over."
Richard is a line lieutenant for the Krewe of Iris, New Orleans' oldest all-women krewe, or parading troupe, established in 1917. Pulling up in her driveway, I'm joined by my good friend and New Orleans resident Sabrina Canfield. Heading to Richard's door, we note the Krewe of Iris flag waving by the front steps, which depicts a woman wearing a tall crown and an elaborate mantle. In just a few days, we'll learn what it means to be an Iris lady - we're riding with the 900-plus ensemble on Saturday afternoon.
Inside, the walls of Richard's home are decorated with numerous framed Mardi Gras ball invitations. In the dining room, a display case boasts two Swarovski crowns, worn by her and her husband during Richard's queen of Iris reign in 2002.
Richard makes good on her promise of king cake and coffee. King cake is a sweet, doughy ring with a cinnamon roll consistency. It's topped with white icing and sprinkled with purple, green and gold sugar - traditional Mardi Gras colors. But the cake's best feature is its surprise accompaniment: a small baby figurine tucked inside its buttery folds. It's said that whoever finds the baby in their slice needs to host the next Mardi Gras party.
Sabrina and I aren't just visiting Richard on a social call. We have important business to attend to: choosing our Mardi Gras costumes. Since we're joining the parade at a late stage, Richard has graciously rustled up whatever options are available. They range from a pink princess get-up to a mouse suit to something along the lines of shiny sailor attire. We settle on the latter, and choose red masks, matching each other. Iris is a traditional krewe, and full masks and white gloves are required on the float.
As I'm finishing up my slice of king cake, I discover that what at first appears to be a nut is actually a golden baby figurine. Sabrina and Richard both exclaim over my good fortune, and I think it's auspicious for the days ahead.
Overheard at the Hilton: "well, you need to go home and do your hair, because the cuter you are, the more beads you're going to get."
The morning of the parade, Iris participants meet at the Hilton at a brisk 7AM. Due to thunderous rainstorms, our parade time has been bumped a day, and the air carries both nervousness and excitement - rescheduling a 33-float spectacle is no easy task, and the police have warned us that any latecomers will be left behind.
At the front of Iris' rented room, a DJ plays "Firework," by Katy Perry, and "Cupid Shuffle," by R&B singer Cupid, who hails from Louisiana. Across from me and Sabrina, a set of forty-something women wearing pink suits pinned with hearts get up and dance. This year's theme is "Messenger of the Gods," and some of the costumes at other tables, such as the mouse outfit worn by members of a computer float, are related to the communication concept.
Sabrina nicknames the title float, on which we'll be riding, the metaphysical float, because it depicts a huge painted rainbow and globular sun. We wonder what kind of communication such a mural represents - divine intervention? It's only later that I learn the rainbow is a symbol of the Krewe of Iris.
A few hours after arriving at the Hilton, we step onto buses and make our way uptown to the floats. I realize that the anxiety I felt in the air of the exhibition center was probably my own; Sabrina and I had previously loaded all of our throws (gifts tossed to paradegoers), a very generous gift from Iris' captain, onto our float. However, warned that they could possibly be stolen, we surreptitiously stowed them in the bathroom. Although it seems unlikely they'd get taken, I worry we'll be a throw-less embarrassment to Iris.
The throws are on deck, but I had failed to account for rainy weather - what were formerly enormous boxes of feather boas, squishy stress dolls, and tall, soft iris toys are now a soggy mess in a bathroom stall.
Still, we are undeterred and enthusiastic, breaking open the packages and marveling at the captain's generosity - channeling the energy of Santa's little helpers, we unearth a seemingly endless stream of Iris-related novelties. My white gloves get soaked, my sailor outfit is covered in rainwater, and my sneakers become wet, icy blocks, which fail to thaw until two hours later, after the parade is finished. But gleefully (and speedily, because we're scared the float will leave without us) we plough through all the wrapping.
Not long after arranging our throws, the float is abruptly jerked forward, and just like that, we're off. Our route curves downtown, along St. Charles Avenue, heading toward the French Quarter.
Almost immediately we're met with the spectacle of throngs of paradegoers, all raising their arms at us and clamoring for throws.
To people far from the float, I throw iris toys like spears. Stress dolls are soft, and get tossed to kids. Boas flutter all over the place, and after too many misses, I refrain from throwing them at all, instead handing them carefully to people close at hand. I begin to feel like a benevolent monarch doling out gifts - everyone waves like they know me. Those famed Mardi Gras beads are actually the trickiest toss of all - slippery to maneuver, it's easy to miss and hit someone with whom you don't have eye contact. I can tell you firsthand that beads smack terribly when thrown from a distance.
Next to Sabrina and me, a college-aged rider has us in hysterics when she teases the crowd. "Work for it, you've gotta work for it!" she screams, dangling stuffed animals and luau necklaces just out of reach of the eager hands. These temptations are like fresh blood in a river of piranhas, and the crowd goes wild trying to grab her throws.
Along the way we see paradegoers of all stripes: Tulane kids, hipsters, tourists, white people, black people, young and old. Some people light up when they receive a throw; to others, you can tell it's just another necklace added to the pile. One woman blows me a kiss, another gives me the evil eye.
It's exhilarating and exhausting and after two hours it's finished. We return our costumes to Richard, dizzy but happy. Back at Sabrina's, I take a four-hour nap.
Two days later, it's Mardi Gras night, and Sabrina and I sift through the recent events over drinks in the Marigny. We sit on stools at our favorite bar and share a smoke through an ancient, screenless window frame. Behind us, a girl dressed as Marie Antoinette sits on a repurposed church pew. Outside, a woman in a centaur costume adjusts a hoof. No longer messengers of the gods, Sabrina and I wear jackets with jeans. We're mere mortals once again, but lucky ones. We decide we can't wait until next Mardi Gras.